cigarettes are code for proletarian

Jim heartfield jim at
Fri Dec 11 10:20:17 PST 1998

In message < at>, Louis Proyect <lnp3 at> makes two central charges against Doug H's (qualified) defence of smokers


>This is lacking totally in what should matter most, a historical analysis
>of the role of tobacco in capital accumulation.


>Doug, as in a previous discussion of prostitution on PEN-L, doesn't see
>these questions in class terms. They are only life-style questions for him.

But as I see it, it is Louis who fails on both these scores.

The history of the legal battles against narcotics has been shot through with class prejudice. Prohibition was not just a 'hysterical' reaction on the part of religious women as it is caricatured today. It was a component of the conflict between the Wasp elite of the early century and the growing urban immigrant working classes (yes, prejudice against the urban has a history, too). Drinking was an activity that came to symbolise the urban working classes, and, consequently, a target for anti-working class prejudice.

By targetting their habits - drink - the reformers shielded themselves from the charge of simple prejudice, moralising their class prejudices as a pretended aspiration to 'better' the workers. In Britain, retricted opening hours (only very recently lifted) were introduced in the war, to prevent absenteeism amongst 'dissipated' workers.

As early as the eighteenth century, the British gentry sought to impose restrictions on tobacco consumption, and to close down coffee houses as well as regulating the consumption of chocolate. This was not an early health programme, but an attempt to prevent the social banter that spread sedition amongst the urban classes.

Bertolt Brecht always understood the significance of the ban on tobacco in theatres. He demanded that where his plays were shown smoking should be allowed so that working people should feel relaxed and unrestrained by theatrical conventions. (I think you'll find the reference in Brecht on Theatre, edited by John Willett)

More recently, of course, we have seen the way that racial minorities have been criminalised by association with drugs. Criminalising heroin, cocaine and its derivatives has been a useful subterfuge for the criminalisation of whole communities.

Now today, the prejudices against American and British working people are expressed in terms of a moralistic assault on their 'bad habits'. No doubt all of this makes middle class health professionals feel suitably superior, but it does nothing in particular to reduce smoking. -- Jim heartfield

More information about the lbo-talk mailing list